National Association of Disability Practitioners

NADP Colleagues: Harriet Cannon - the Association of Autism Practitioners in Higher Education

June 17, 2021 Lynn Season 2 Episode 4
National Association of Disability Practitioners
NADP Colleagues: Harriet Cannon - the Association of Autism Practitioners in Higher Education
Show Notes Transcript

NADP works closely with our colleagues and  partners to network, share information and support our members. 

This episode finds Lynn Wilson from NADP chatting with Harriet Cannon from the University of Leeds. We find out how Harriet and colleagues have set up the Association of Autism Practitioners in Higher Education. The support that they currently offer and their plans for the future.

NADPVIC2021: Joining the dots of inclusive practice – what is the picture now?

NADP Podcast: Talking to our Partner Organisations

Lynn Wilson in conversation with Harriet Cannon from the Association of Autism Practitioners in HE.

Lynn: Welcome to the seventh in our series of NADP conference podcasts. These podcasts are a series of interviews where we aim to get to know our colleagues and partners and learn from their experiences working in our sector. Today I'm talking with Harriet Cannon, who is one of the people involved with the setting up of the Association of Autism Practitioners in HE or AAPHE, as I believe it's called. So, good morning. 

Harriet: Good morning. Good to be here. 

Lynn: Right, To start with… Could you tell us something about you and your role within your institution? 

Harriet: Okay, so I am the Disability Advisory Team manager within Disability Services at the University of Leeds. We're quite a big service; split into five different teams but my team is responsible for assessing all the evidence and the registration documents that come in from disabled applicants and students, and then making the recommendations for adjustments in support. Adjustments to learning and teaching and assessment. And then the other side of what we do as a team is the ongoing case work that we do with students. So, throughout their time at university: fixing the issues, problem solving. The working with students that goes on throughout their time as students. 

I am an autism practitioner by background. I used to be a disability coordinator, working specifically and only with autistic students. I don't do quite as much of that now as I used to. I do still have a caseload of autistic students particularly PhD students. I have quite a lot of autistic PhD students that I work with to, kind of, keep my hand in and because it's the thing I enjoy most of all, but the rest of my time is taken up by managing a team, and then getting involved in the strategic stuff and representing disability services across the university, which seems to be mostly sitting in meetings and going: “but what about disabled students?”

Lynn: Yeah, I've done a fair bit of that myself [laugh].

Harriet: It doesn't always make me popular, but it does need doing and I get involved in quite a lot of stuff outside university too. So, I sit on the Office of the Independent Adjudicator’s Disability Experts Panel. That's the ombudsman for the university sector, higher education sector, which I know you're a member of too, Lynn. So, I get to see you there. And I am a member of the Department for Education’s Autism Advisory Group. So that's talking about all things autism in relation to disabled students in higher education. I am a secondary school governor with a SEND remit. So, I get to see a very different angle on disability, which is quite useful in terms of thinking about how students get to us at university and the experiences they've gone through at school. So those are all the things I get involved with.

Lynn: Yeah, we've been talking about… (going slightly off topic here)… but we've been talking a lot about language recently, and the difference in language between school and university that can cause quite a lot of problems.

Harriet: Yes. I had a meeting with the SENCO at the school, where I am a governor, as we do quite regularly. One of the topics we talked about was language and the absolute difference in the way that language is used, just the simple things like the fact that the word ‘disability’ just isn't used in school. It's all, you know, SEN or additional needs or whatever else you want to call it. And that's a problem if you then pop up at university and start getting emails from disability services. You don't have a clue that that applies to you. So, one of the things that I'm going to be doing at the school, where I am a governor, is actually going in and giving them a bit of a briefing for the students on their SEN register about what they need to know about university; the language they need to get used to; and the things they need to look out for. As soon as I'm able to get into school (when we're not in the middle of a pandemic) that, I think, would be a really useful thing to do because it is it's a totally different vocabulary, and much of university is – university comes with its own vocabulary that isn't necessarily easy to understand for your average 18 year old anyway. But when you add all of the disability language into it too, it just becomes very confusing very quickly. And that's something that we've had to do quite a lot of work on, when we've been thinking about transition, students coming into university, and about how we phrase some of the work that we do. How we catch students. So, we often talk about things like… “Have you had support at school?” “Did you have exam arrangements in your exams at school?”… rather than talking about disability, to try and catch all of those people who just don't know that the word disability applies to them. Yeah, so it is very interesting, the language is so different.

Lynn: Yeah, so I remember years ago I worked at Keele University and a tearful first year in their first week came to me and said I saw you helping a blind student, and I've been looking everywhere and searching online and I can't find the SENCO office.

Harriet; And it doesn't exist. No, it's a real problem and I don't quite know how we fix it and I think I think it's between us and schools. I think schools need to know much more about how disability support works in university, so that they can prepare their pupils, their students for the next step because, otherwise, how are they ever going to know? How do they magically, over the summer, learn this whole new set of vocabulary to understand where the support comes from? Let alone the fact that they've then got to drive that support when it has probably been parents or carers or guardians doing that previously. Filling in forms might be a new thing. Understanding that they have to take action, in order to get the support they need, and that's just sort of magically happened in the background when they're at school. It's an awful lot when you're also trying to get used to being at university and living on your own for the first time.

Lynn: Yes. I think so. I did some presentations for AccessHE in London, several years ago now, to teachers at school and I was absolutely horrified at the number that didn't even know about Disabled Students’ Allowances, or how to manage it, or the fact that they actually need to be applying in the February or March, not in the September when they get to university,

Harriet: Yes that’s the thing and if they knew that in school but… I mean, obviously, not everybody goes straight from school into university, but for those who do, if they knew about DSAs in schools, they could be helping students to get those forms in, in February, March time so that everything will be in place by September. It’s a real failing point in the system. I mean it's like lots of things. Like EHCPs, not transferring into university so you've always got these jump off points you have one set of documentation at one stage of your life and then you change institution or you grow up; you get older and all of a sudden that whole other set of documents, applies to you, but nobody tells you any of that. Nobody teaches any of that to you, you just kind of got to find it out for yourself.

Lynn: Anyway, having put the world to rights on that one because I think that's a really important topic and I must admit it was going through my mind… I was thinking, if you're going to be doing that presentation for school anyway, whether it be worth asking you to record that so that it could be a resource that other universities could share with schools or do something similar. It might be a really good idea. But what we were intending to talk about today was the Association of Autism Practitioners in HE. So, can you tell me a little bit about it, and the JISCMail support forum and how it works? 

Harriet: Yeah, so we are a network of autism practitioners working in HE and it really exists to provide peer support to one another at one another and to improve support for autistic students so that's our very broad remit - to help each other out, help fill in some gaps in the knowledge and make things better for autistic students. It's kind of where we're coming from. So, at the moment… I mean we have some grand ideas… but at the moment, our main activity is run through the JISCMail, email group and so that is a closed group. People have to join it, which means I have to kind of check that they're doing the right type of work, to allow them in, but once they're in, they can really post questions about anything, or ask for advice so we do get lots of questions. We get lots of people who are new to the world of working with autistic students; who want to know what they need to do to set the support up or have fallen into the common traps that those of us who have been doing this for a while, have all fallen into, and need to know how to get back out of them. We also use it to kind of point each other towards new research or initiatives, or to look for opportunities to collaborate. So, there's quite often calls for collaborating on papers or presenting at conferences and those sorts of things. So, it's really just an opportunity for people who are working in a very similar field, perhaps in different ways, to share ideas and share best practice and share knowledge and kind of look after each other. It's kind of an extension of NADP really. It's a safe space to ask questions and get some support from other people who know this particular world that we're in. We did try… well, we did hold a conference, pretty soon after we formed, that was very successful, down in Coventry. It's was a great event, brought lots of us together and we talked about lots of the main themes affecting autistic students at the time, and we keep meaning to do that again. I was just at the point of starting to plan it when the pandemic hit. So, it's obviously gone on pause now, but hopefully we will be doing that, perhaps in Cambridge, because Jo Hastwell in Cambridge is one of the people that helped set this up. So, hopefully, we will be doing that as soon as restrictions allow us to. We've had a bit of time to plan it, because it is good to bring people together, and we're trying to make ourselves a bit more formal. We're trying to formalise it as an association. As I say, at the moment, we are very much a JISCMail, email-based network. We would like to do more than that, if we can. Particularly we would like to be able to do things like accreditation. Have some form of accreditation to give people some kind of standing as an autism practitioner, and perhaps to get around some of the difficulties around mandatory qualifications for those members of staff who need to prove their qualifications in order to work with autistic students, but that's the grand plan for the future we're not quite there yet.

Lynn: It sounds great, very ambitious too. So, very happy to help out, if you need any help along the way from the things that NADP have learnt. So, who are members of the network? You've said, kind of, related professions, so it's not just disability advisors with a specialism in supporting autistic students?

Harriet: Yeah, so we're quite a diverse bunch. Effectively, what we say, is that if you either work with autistic students, in whatever form that might take, or you're involved in something that supports autistic students or makes things better for autistic students then you can join the network. So, we've got around about 250 members at the moment, and a lot of them are NADP members, because that's how they found out about it. A lot of them are disability advisers working with a remit for autistic students, but we've also got people who are mentors and tutors. So, the specialist mentors and one-to-one specialist study skills tutors because, actually, they were really working in isolation in terms of understanding how to best support autistic students, and often, you know, as it's the way with support. People have tested things out and found things that work and things that don't work and having access to a group of people who can say, you know, well, I can see what's going on in this situation, try this. This might work. This has worked for me before. It might not work but give it a go. That is really helpful and really powerful. So, we were quite happy to welcome in mentors and tutors. We've got some practice-based researchers as well working at universities who are actually doing research about autism, and often that's practice based, and we've got quite a lot of members who are autistic members of staff working in in higher education as well. So yeah, quite a diverse bunch but really the kind of the common theme is that we all have an interest in autism, and we've all got an opportunity to improve support for autistic students. 

Lynn: So are you just UK based or do you have any international members? 

Harriet: A few international members. We're mostly UK based but we do have a few international members, mainly people who are, like with NADP, who are doing something similar elsewhere and who find out about the work that we're doing here and that's quite interesting because autism is viewed very differently in different parts of the world, and the types of support that are put in place are very different in different parts of the world too. So, it's quite a good opportunity to share that knowledge and understanding with each other, quite useful to see different perspectives.

Lynn: Well, we worked together on a great document for colleges and universities last year, when we just about entered the COVID pandemic. Can you tell us a bit more about it and how it came about?

Harriet: Yes, so that's a classic example of a quick idea that blossomed into something quite big quite quickly. So, really what had happened is that several of us, and we do talk to each other - we talk on this forum and we talk to each other outside of it too, particularly those of us who have worked in this field for quite a long time and know each other quite well. And what we noticed very quickly and not surprisingly at all was that COVID was having a massive impact on autistic students and especially that overnight pivot into online learning and teaching. So, everything stopped quite literally overnight and then changed into something completely different the next morning. And as is often the case in an emergency situation, information wasn't necessarily being shared in a clear, explicit kind of autism-friendly way, It almost never is, anyway, let alone in an emergency, and autistic students were telling us how anxious they were about all of these changes and how difficult it was to navigate this whole new environment and this new set of expectations that nobody had really told them anything about. They had very little direction, very little instruction. They were already very anxious about the pandemic. The nature of pandemic is the rules and restrictions and that brings with it its own anxiety, and they were just overwhelmed. They were absolutely overwhelmed. So, Nicki Martin had already put together some guidance, similar guidance for school-aged children and their parents, and she thought there might be good idea if we adapted that to be COVID-specific and also aimed at university students rather than school-aged children. So, we had a framework to start from which was helpful because it's always better than starting from scratch. 

So, what we did was a joint effort really. We drew on the knowledge of all of the members of the association, and everybody chipped in and we had a shared document that people were editing as we went along, and lots of people had different ideas about things that they thought might work, or things that they have managed to put together very quickly in their own institutions. And we put together this guidance document, and what it does is it offers information, but also very practical advice about how to manage their studies at this time, but also a lot of reassurance about aspects of the pandemic. 

So, we were trying to fill that gap of information, and it is generic it's not institution specific, but what we wanted was to say that there will be somebody in your university, who you can talk to find out about the support you can access at this time or what that support might look like. Try and find one key contact and that's the person that you need to send all your emails to rather than sending emails to everyone all over campus, which is often a response to the kind of panic and overwhelm. So what we want to do is make sure that there will be lots of practical advice in there for students about all elements of their studies and reassurance that this is a really difficult situation to live through it still is and it's okay to feel really anxious about it and this is where you can get some support for that anxiety. 

We put it together in about three days which I think is probably a record of some sort, It genuinely was a collaborative effort and it's been quite widely shared across the sector. So, lots of universities, put it up on their websites or shared it with their groups of students. 

It doesn't just apply to autistic students because as with most things, what applies to autistic students is usually just basic common sense, and somebody actually explaining things that other people think are obvious and so, it's quite useful for other people to read too. So, I know it's been shared beyond autistic students. And then, Nicki had also work very hard to do a literature review as part of it as well and that literature review version was included in the December 2020 issue of the Journal of Inclusive Practice. So that's there as well with a bit more detail about where this comes from. We didn't think the literature review bit would be especially helpful to students because if you're in panic mode you don't want to wade through a literature review to get to the practical advice so we have got the two versions of it. Yep, so that's there for people to read as well.

Lynn: Yes. So the December 2020 edition of our journal is open access on up on the website so people can get it. Also I think, both versions, the student version and the literature review version are both on the COVID resource hub, which is signposted from the front page of our website, if anyone wants to have a look at them. 

But you helped us out again, didn't you? You were a panelist for our special members’ webinar on using the REAL approach online with autistic students. Just for those that don't know, can you tell us a bit more about the REAL approach? 

Harriet: Yeah, this is another Nicki Martin creation. It's a really simple mnemonic to help those people who are working with autistic students to provide support that is relevant and appropriate and beneficial to autistic people. So, I think it dates back to about 2007, 2008 when Nicki, came up with it, which coincidentally is when I started doing this work. So, obviously a lot of things were happening in 2007, and it stands for Reliable, Empathic, Anticipatory and Logical. And, as with so much to do with Inclusive Practice, it's not rocket science. None of it is particularly difficult. It is complete, common sense and it's really just about being a decent fellow human being to the people around you but, as we know, sometimes that does need spelling out a little bit to people. Do want me to talk a bit more about each of those, each of those four areas? 

Lynn: You know, I think we might run out of time if we do because I know we spent a two-hour webinar on it! It's something that we cover in the autism training, which we put on, on behalf of the Department for Education, which allows people to claim for DSAs if they're working as a mentor or SPLD tutor. More information on our website on that anyway. And I should also say that, for members, the webinar can actually be re watched from the members area of our website. And if they want to rewatch it and then fill in a short form they can actually apply for an accredited CPD certificate for it. So, I'll just say that that because I know CPD is a real difficult area at the moment to try and get both time to do it, and funding from university. So, that's a bit of a free resource for members. 

And I remember so vividly with that webinar, that it was useful to talk about the REAL approach online but the questions at the end were an awful lot about how to help autistic students move back into university. So, there's a lot of information there as well. 

Harriet: That's a real feature of my work at the moment and it's really important that we don't forget that because we know the confusion and the distress that suddenly moving into a pandemic caused lots of people, but especially for autistic people, and we have an opportunity to plan it a bit better when we go back, which means that we can we can share information better and not cause that same distress, which will be a good thing. 

Lynn: Yeah, I think it'd be quite a good idea to have a reference document or a webinar on this  in isolation. I know that in America, one of the Deaf Associations is doing a webinar where people can ask questions, looking at how to move Deaf people back onto campus in a blended or fully on campus format, because they are also struggling with this situation. So, maybe we need to talk later about what we can do to get that information further spread. Okay, slightly different, we hear a lot about inclusivity in our roles as disability practitioners What does inclusivity mean to you?

Harriet: Oh, such a big question! Yeah, it’s a big question really close to my heart. I sit on our university Inclusive Learning and Teaching Development team where we meet and think about all things inclusive practice and try and get it embedded at the university. So, we think about this quite a lot. I think broadly that inclusivity or inclusive practices is talked about a lot. It is an approach which genuinely recognises that people are inherently different and diverse, and therefore it actively seeks to enable students to access their studies and to participate fully in every part of their student journey, and to be able to demonstrate their learning at the end of it all. And that's not with bolted on adjustments, that's with activities that have actually been designed to be inclusive from the outset, which is always the bit that's a little bit tricky. And it's much wider than just disabled students. It's about all students and taking into account all of the intersectional differences and their cultures and their identities. And I think something that we've talked about quite a lot recently, is that the terms ‘inclusive’ and ‘accessible’ often get used interchangeably but they're actually different and they mean different things. I think it's really important that we don't lose sight of that. 

So being inclusive means considering the broadest range of difference associated with just the diversity of being a human being. Whereas being accessible tends to get applied very much in relation to disabled people and about adjustments and adaptations that bring that parity of experience. So, an activity can be accessible but not inclusive. But if it's genuinely inclusive, it should be accessible. And I think we've got a long way to go to build that understanding about what being inclusive really means. 

I think universities, quickly fall into the trap, and get a bit stuck with, the idea that bolting on an accessible option makes it inclusive when it doesn't. That's not that's not being inclusive, that's being accessible and being accessible is important, but being inclusive would actually save everybody an awful lot of time and effort. 

So, I can give you a good example of that from, from Leeds with our inclusive exam paper so my colleague Jenny Brady and I spent 11 years battling to bring in an inclusive exam paper. The situation was that we had a template for exam papers that academic colleagues used, and it was a poor template. It was written in Times New Roman, tiny font. There were bits of instruction up in the header and in the footer and things were dotted around. It was written in this really odd passive voice, and it wasn't great. What we would have to do… when students, and this was primarily autistic students, had an exam, we would often have to modify the exam paper. So we wouldn't change any of the academic content but we would change the carrier language, the instructions. Basically, the first page is what we would change, the rubric, and that was the accessible alternative, and, you know, that was kind of okay when we had two students, but when we had 300 students, that wasn't sustainable. We couldn't adjust that many exam papers. It turned into a huge exercise and cost an awful lot of money. And so, what we managed to persuade the university to do in the end was just to use that modified version, as the template for all exams for all students. So, we did quite a lot of work with our exams office and with some academic staff, and we made the changes to the standard template that we would normally make, if we were modifying the paper, and then we used it for everybody. And it's been absolutely brilliant. It's worked for autistic students, and other neurodivergent students, but it's also really worked for international students, particularly those who don't have English as a first language. It's worked for students who come from different backgrounds, students from low socio-economic backgrounds as well, particularly people who have been out of education for a long time. They just don't get the language, the weird language that was being used, and couldn't fathom the instructions. But it's also been really good to see feedback from academic colleagues too. So, some colleagues are saying, well it just saves time and it's easier. But one of the comments that I really liked was from an academic colleague, who's not from the UK. He doesn't speak English as a first language, who found the template, so easy and straightforward in plain English. He didn't have to play this game of using the strange, arcane, very formal language, and it's completely illogical format, in order to match what his colleagues were doing. 

So that was really good feedback to have as well. And it's kind of a win-win, which is the point of inclusive practice. If you do it right, you just have to do it once and it works for everybody, and that would save everybody, time and effort which is really what we all want because nobody's got any time. So, I mean, this is particularly important in relation to autism, as well as any disability that has a sensory element because I think accessibility for so long, it's just been about the physical environment. Ramps and lifts and those sorts of obvious things that people automatically think of when they think about disability, but actually there's probably more people out there with sensory access requirements than there are physical access requirements. When I'm working with autistic students, often what we're trying to work through, and the greatest hurdles, are about things like the challenging sensory environment; the administrative burden of being a disabled student; the lack of understanding from others; and the kind of overwhelming stigma about autism. And those are things that it is difficult to make an adjustment for. That's about being inclusive. If you can be inclusive, those things will be better. Those barriers will be reduced. 

So, almost every adjustment you can think of that works for autistic student will benefit a non-autistic student, I can't think of really anything that doesn't benefit non-autistic people as well. So, whether that's writing something clearly in plain English, which is always my bugbear, and campaign in lif,e to write things in plain English, whether it's just being explicit in instructions or giving consideration to the sensory environment or getting good feedback that those things work for everybody. So, if we can just adopt those approaches from the beginning for all students, you will be benefiting all of those students who they know they're autistic, and we know they're autistic, but all of our students who aren't, and all of those students who have any other disability that means that they need some additional support with what they're trying to do, as well as international students and other students, it just works for everybody.

Lynn: Yeah, I think the exams example is good in the fact that everyone is anxious when they go into exams and as we talked about so often with autistic students and high anxiety that comes with autism very often that cortisol-adrenaline response, which actually stops them thinking straight and stops them thinking clearly. So that rubric right at the beginning, is they're starting to try and read that when they're not thinking clearly, and we're not talking just autistic students, we're talking about everybody that's anxious. So, having that clear and factual and straightforward. That is one way of helping students relax enough to be able to think their way through the rest of the paper.

Harriet: Yes, exactly, because it is such a simple thing, and you know that. There was a lot of worry about what we were trying to do and I think people thought we were dumbing down and we were making exam papers easier, and, you know, I did have an academic tell me, a few years into that particular project, that if, If they can't understand the question, they shouldn't be at university, but that's not the test. The test isn't understanding the question. The test is the response and the skills that you use in responding to the question, and if you give people the question in a clear way that they can answer, you get better answers and surely as an academic, you want to sit marking papers of good answers where the question has been understood than to try and catch people out from not having quite interpreted a question that didn't really mean anything in the first place and students were getting lost. So, some of those multi-clause questions where you'd have endless colons and semi colons within one sentence that went on for almost a paragraph. How, as you say, when your Cortisol is through the roof, how do you possibly extrapolate from that, what the answer is, and which bits you are supposed to answer. And you don't have to change the question, you just have to split it out, into sections. No, that's not changing it. It's not making any easier. It's just setting it out in a way that makes it easy to understand what's required of you and that works for everybody. It's good for everybody.

Lynn: Yes, definitely. You mentioned, when we were talking there, about intersectionality. It's something that we're beginning to hear a lot about now. It's been one of my things I've been throwing around for the last few years, because I think it's really helping to increase understanding that one size does not fit all. We're quite worried across the sector at the moment, about discussions on whether all dyslexic students can have a standard package from DSAs, and not all dyslexic students are identical. It's going to depend on background, when they were diagnosed, what strategies they were helped with. Can you tell me a bit about how intersectionality affects your work?

Harriet: Yes. So, this is so important to what we do, and it's definitely a hot topic as well particularly in relation to autism. So intersectionality and autism is discussed quite widely, I spend quite a lot time on Twitter, and it comes up a lot on Twitter. And I think that's often to do with the fact that autistic people don't always fit neatly into little boxes. Don't always want to fit neatly into little boxes; neurotypical little boxes, which is a strength, often. And that might be due to the intersectionality itself, or it might be the kind of willingness to identify and explore some of that intersectionality as being an interesting thing. So yeah, again it goes back to this kind of basic human response. We are all unique. We all have unique life experiences that are based on all of our different identities that we that we gather. And those experiences might connect with, or diverged from, others. And that isn't right or wrong, it just is. I really like the phrase that gets used around this which is ‘injustice squared’ as a way of thinking about intersectionality and thinking about when we start working with students, the journeys that they've had to get to the point where we meet them, and the challenges that they faced and how different those challenges will be, depending on their different identities, it's really important to listen to what the person in front of you is telling you, and to understand and accept their experiences and not apply this kind of blanket approach. 

I think that's particularly important around things like a shared diagnosis, like you've just been saying. So, if somebody gives you the diagnosis of autism, that's not a homogenous diagnosis. You won't be the same as any other autistic person, and there is that phrase that gets used a lot which is that ‘once you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism’. That's the phrase, as it was and that's so true. We have to understand that autistic people are people, and they're humans, and they are diverse and they have very different experiences. 

And that happens a lot around diagnosis. So, for example, a non-binary person from a BAME background will have had a very, very different experience of diagnosis to a white cis male. That's because of the way that the medical profession has viewed autism, and has viewed diagnosis, without taking into account anything to do with intersectionality, which is a failing. It's a massive failing because those are the things that block access to diagnosis, that give mis-diagnoses, that inhibit access to support, that put people in boxes and prevent genuine understanding of what it means to be autistic. And a lack of understanding of intersectionality is really what perpetuates inequality. You won't get any better, until people understand a bit more about intersectionality. So, we have to understand the kind of multiple and distinct challenges that our students experience. We have to stop making assumptions about them because of their diagnostic label. I don't have a problem with labels I think labels can be an extremely good an empowering thing, but they are a bit of information about person. They are not all of the information about the person. And it goes back to that REAL approach again. It's the empathy, it's the understanding and listening to what students are telling you about their experiences and meeting them where they are and challenging your own assumptions and your own preconceptions about them, in order to get them to the point of having the support they need in order to access the things that they need to access. 

So yeah, it's a really, really important topic to keep talking about and to keep thinking about and it's been around a while. It's just happened to have kind of really taken flight in the last few years. I think it's very important that we hold that in our minds as practitioners, all of the time, especially around challenging some of those assumptions. It's hard work, you know, it's a process you have to keep doing it. And everything you might think you know about somebody on the basis of the identity they presented to you, might be completely wrong and you have to be prepared to be challenged on it. And that's a good thing we should keep doing that. We should keep being challenged on it.

Lynn: Yeah, I totally agree with you. I've just written an article for our journal that's coming out this summer on intersectionality. Taking it back to its basics and just analysing me and intersectionality to make it easily accessible for people to read, and how that actually has affected me and my life processes. So, that people can start looking back. There's a nasty little phrase, I think was developed in America, saying ‘check your privilege’ and it can be used as an insult, but actually it's really quite important to ask yourself that. Where am I coming to from this, and I find that very useful for me working with different students.

Harriet: Absolutely, it's that empathy thing again. It really is. You have to think about. Rather than saying ‘check your privilege’, I would say ‘change your assumptions’. We all make assumptions, it's a human thing to make assumptions, but you have to be open to the fact that you could be completely wrong. And so, it's okay to be completely wrong. It's okay to learn something different about yourself from the people that you're working with, but you have to be open to it. It's really important as practitioners because we're working with humans; we're working with people, and we're often working with people who have had very poor experiences of their support so far, because they haven't been listened to, because they've had a label slapped on them that's meant a kind of a homogenous approach to how they've been supported because they've not ever had a voice that they can use. And it's really important for practitioners to make space for those people to be able to use their voice and to tell us what they need to tell us, and for us to respond to that rather than just responding to the label.

Lynn: That's really interesting. Right, one last question for you. What's the biggest challenge you have with your specific role right now, and do you have any ideas on how you're going to overcome it?

Harriet: Well, I guess the challenge that I have, is the challenge that we all have in our education which is there just isn't enough time to do all the things I want to do, and to do a really good job of the things that I want to do. And I have absolutely no idea how to overcome that, because I think it's just a feature of the sort of work that we do in higher education. There is always more to do then there is time in which to do it. 

I think when I'm talking about autistic students and the challenges for them in particular (because that's occupying quite a lot of my mind at the moment) top of my list is, as we've spoken about, how we plan for re-entry into university. How we keep hold of some of the advantages of remote study and remote assessment because there have been huge positives around all of that. And all of those things that disabled people have been asking for, for years and years and years, and been told are not possible. We've just proven are entirely possible, and often very successful. So, we need to try and keep hold of some of that, but how we have those conversations with people, to persuade them not to go back into what was ‘normal’ before. 

So, I've just had a great conversation with one of my autistic PhD students recently who just said people are craving normal. They're craving normal, and so there is this kind of reflex to go back to how things were, even if how things were, wasn't very good for lots of people. It's just familiar, and it's safe. And so, it's quite difficult and quite challenging, sometimes to have those conversations around conceptualising something a bit different, that we haven't tried before, and we might get things wrong, but we have to keep hold of some of that stuff that's worked for disabled students and, in particular autistic students. We can't afford to lose it all when we go back to this, whatever this ‘new normal’ is. So, I think in terms of that, it's me sitting in more meetings saying ‘But what about disabled students? [laughter] I think it will be on my  headstone!

Lynn: That takes us back to where we started!

Harriet: I had great advice when I first started in this world. And actually, it's from when I used to work at Cambridge University. I didn't work in the disability team. I worked on summer schools, but I had some really helpful advice from the team in the Cambridge Disability Resource Centre. They said your role is to ask two questions: one is ‘why’, and one is ‘why not’. 

So, you have to ask ‘why’, and you have to ask ‘why not’? And that's what you do as a disability practitioner. I've always kept hold of that. So, in addition to saying, ‘But what about disabled students?’ I often sit in meetings and will say things like, 

‘Well, why? Why do we do that? Why? Why do we have to do it that way?’ 


‘Why not? Why don't we do these things?’ 

So yeah, I think that's really helpful advice to pass on in terms of what we do as practitioners and how we get through this next stage of challenging our practice as practitioners working in in disability but also as members of staff working in universities.

Lynn: That is great. Thank you so much for your time today. I think that's a really interesting podcast that will be appreciated both by our members and our listeners across the world because we've got a lot of people listening to these. I can see where the downloads are coming from. So okay thank you very much. 

Harriet: Thank you Lynn. Lovely to talk to you.